Over the past century, Dominica has produced a number of legendary businessmen, men who transcended the limitations of their generation and achieved great success through prodigious efforts, innovation and determination. One of the most illustrious members of this select group is Waddy Astaphan, the architect of a business conglomerate which has dominated Dominica’s commercial landscape for decades.
Described in a May 1997 article in The Dominica Chronicle as “a colossus straddling the island’s business world”, Waddy arrived in Dominica with his family in 1933 from Suriname where he had been born on October 10, 1923. His father, Anthony Astaphan, opened up a modest business in Roseau selling staples such as sugar, flour, rice and butter to locals.
Waddy attended the Saint Mary’s Academy where he excelled both in academics and in sports. He represented the school in both cricket and football and did very well in the Senior Cambridge Examinations, gaining a distinction in Geography in 1940. He fulfilled his father’s wish by forgoing a career in medicine which he sought and in 1941, joined the family business. During the decade, Waddy boldly expanded the scope of the business by manufacturing furniture with Dominica’s timber and exporting vanilla, cocoa and bay oil.
Almost immediately, Waddy demonstrated a flair for innovation. He introduced a simple measure for the curing of vanilla which increased production for export. Second, instead of relying on the colonial government laboratory at the Botanical Gardens for testing cocao beans, he purchased testing equipment and performed his own testing, thereby increased productivity.
Even while enhancing efficiency in his operations, the resourceful Waddy found ways to earning an income in the highly competitive business market in Dominica. He sold hams to stevedores, repaired shoes and darned cloth. He performed every task in the family business including preparing customs documents, brokerage, portering, retailing, cashing and bookkeeping.
But Waddy’s early success stemmed not only from his prodigious energy but also from his business philosophy. Growing up in Roseau, he interacted with the poor and downtrodden. 2 2 This exposure played a significant role in his early decision to sell products at a lower price than that of his competitors. It was a good business policy but it reflected a degree of social responsibility long before cooperate responsibility had become en vogue in business circles.
With the cessation of World War II in 1945, Waddy set about expanding the family business in a manner which would have been impossible without his stewardship. He opened a dry goods store on Hanover Street and a wholesale hardware store on the Bayfront. He purchased land in Fond Cole where he built a distribution centre to achieve economies of scale by bulk buying and an eight acre parcel of land in Canefield where he built a furniture factory, garage and warehouse. He also opened a small textile factory in the 1950s where he manufactured school uniforms.
In the 1960s, Waddy built the Asta Hotel and founded the Dominica Construction Company Ltd. which built the Dominica Police Force headquarters, St. Joseph Government School and the Vigie Airport terminal in St. Lucia. In 1966, he established a garage for the servicing and repair of Volkswagen and Peugeot automobiles and Honda motorcycles.
However, the greatest example of Waddy’s vision and determination was his decision in 1959 to build the largest supermarket in Dominica in an area of Roseau where there were no businesses. Local businessmen scoffed at the idea of building a supermarket in a location where Kingsland House, then a guest house owned by the Nicholls family, had stood for decades. They noted dismissively that the buying public would not abandon the Bayfront where the major businesses in Roseau conducted business, to shop in an isolated area of Roseau.
But Waddy proved them wrong. He opened his supermarket in December 1961 in time for the Christmas holidays. It offered services which were simply unheard of in Dominica at the time. These included hire purchase, layaway schemes and a supermarket section with aisles where customers could browse. He sold furniture and started a laundry service, the first of its kind in the region. In1967, Waddy started to supply propane to Dominican consumers while in 1968, he opened a mattress factory thereby adding value to Dominica’s coconuts.
In 1970, Waddy took the unprecedented step of offering shares in his company at the modest rate of $1 to the public. Up to this point, the major businesses in Dominica had been 3 3 family run affairs. The share offering was not very successful but it gave Waddy additional financial leverage in further expanding his business.
While Waddy proved to be a visionary entrepreneur, in many respects he did not fit the mould of a businessman. An avid sportsman, he played on the forward line for the Phantoms Football club in 1940 and in 1941, tended goal for the Eagle Football Club, the most successful football club in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In sports administration, he served as Chairman of the Dominica Amateur Sports Association and played a seminal role in building the concrete wall around the Windsor Park. Later on in life, he learnt the game of bridge and made the Dominica national team.
Waddy also provided significant financial assistance to his alma mater and to numerous civic organizations and institutions. He sponsored numerous sports teams and made financial contributions to leading Dominican sportsmen. He arranged for the visit of a Suriname Soccer team to Dominica in 1969.
Despite his tremendous success, Waddy never lost touch with the ordinary Dominican. To the contrary, his generosity and empathy for the poor earned his company the nickname, the “People’s Store.” He earned the undivided loyalty of legions of employees, many of whom worked for his company for decades.
Waddy continues to exhibit an extraordinary resilience, tenacity, courage and dignity that have stood him in good stead throughout his life.
His contributions to sports, business, philanthropy and civil society in Dominica will continue to resonate in the hearts and minds of Dominicans for decades to come.